Area 5’s Jay Frechette and game producer Erin Ali met a few years ago when they were both working their way through game design programs at different schools (Jay at The Art Institute in San Francisco, Erin at The University for Advancing Technology in Phoenix, AZ). In Splash Damage, the duo discuss their experiences — the positive, the negative, the insightful, and the just plain funny — at game design school.
Jay: As I mentioned in the last Splash Damage, I didn’t really have any experience in fine art. So the first two quarters at The Art Institute were pretty shocking to me.
All of us freshman got these huge portfolio bags filled with all sorts of art supply essentials to get us through our first-quarter classes. I didn’t know how to use any of it. Other than a Photoshop class and some general-ed courses, it was all fine art and design-fundamental classes for the first six months.
Was the curriculum similar at University of Advancing Technology in your first year?
Erin: Not exactly. It sounds more like you were in a lock-step program, where you decide upon a field you’d like to work in, and they have a predetermined set of classes you take. UAT wasn’t like that.
Based on choosing game design, I’d been provided a set of “suggested” courses. My first year consisted of multimedia courses in Photoshop and HTML, beginning Japanese, computer programming concepts, drawing, history, and game-concept design…needless to say, I was all over the place.
How did AI integrate you into learning more about positions in the game industry? Did you understand your options when you started at AI, or was it very much self-discovery?
Jay: Once you picked a major, your next three to four years were pretty much locked down unless you changed degrees.
I had a few classes that focused specifically on creating art for games in the first year, but most of them were more general intro classes that I shared with kids from other majors. That was both good and bad; it made the class feel diluted because I’d be sharing a Photoshop course with not only game art majors but animation, graphic design, and even fashion students as well. It was really cool to see how the programs that help create games are used in other fields.
It was definitely a year of self-discovery for me. Like my attempt at programming, I thought that I would enter the industry as an artist and work my way up. But once I starting learning the tools, I came to realize that it probably wasn’t going to work out that way. I enjoyed taking the art classes, but it was frustrating because I was never that good at them.
Did you have any favorite classes that first year?
Erin: Yeah, GAM101. I had a very love/hate relationship with that class. GAM101 helped me think more intuitively about games…but at the same time changed how I looked at and played them.
I remember after that course that I played Shadow of the Colossus, and while it was beautiful and I had a good time playing it, I stared at a texture for 10 minutes trying to understand why it was stretched so poorly.
My first year at UAT was very much this cluster of classes and trying to figure out what I wanted to be. I remember taking programming classes with pseudo-code, doing 3D Modeling, turning to character conceptualizing both through art and writing…seemed like nothing was working. My instructors were supportive, but I had some moments when I felt like there wasn’t enough information, or I wasn’t asking the right questions to figure out what to do.
Did you ever feel like you were stuck on a track where you weren’t sure what’d happen?
Jay: I think after my third drawing class, I realized that my plan to be a professional game artist wasn’t such a good idea. That was really frustrating and scary, because I had just moved cross-country to get this degree and invested a lot of money via student loans; there was no going back at that point.
Getting involved with the school clubs and going to International Game Developers Association meetings played a big part in discovering other avenues that I could pursue. A few months after joining the Game Art Club, I became president, and I found that I really enjoyed organizing people and events. Going to IGDA meetings taught me the importance of networking in the industry.
That’s when I shifted my focus from becoming a professional artist to spending more time taking part in opportunities to rally students into projects and events and interfacing with industry professionals outside the classroom.
I remember you got pretty involved with a lot of extra-curricular stuff too, right?
Erin: I did! Early on in college, I’d started getting into graphic design a ton and became the web administrator for an Unreal mod called Counter Organic Revolution, or COR.
Of my entire college experience, I would have to say being on COR was the best move I had ever made. I learned about working with a team and had a ton of exposure to many different areas of game development without having to be at a dev company right away.
Our leads were super professional about the whole experience, and when we released the mod, it was really neat watching as a good number of my friends/teammates started leaving for internships and positions they were able to land. Kinda gave me that hope that with the hard work I could be doing through college, I might get there someday.
I also started up some other projects of my own while still at school: joined a failed mod for about 5 months, created a student-run newspaper, and even started working for the Student Life department.
By the time I’d taken a full-time position with Student Life at the university, I’d felt like I wasn’t finding anything in the industry that suited me as a professional. I dove into working at the school, running events, planning trips, and managing budgets. Then it kind of just struck me: Excel sheets, schedules, team management. Production? I think it was my calling.
Did you ever have a moment like that?
Jay: We had very similar experiences! After taking over the Game Art Club, I started working for Career Services and dabbled in just about every other department in the school. This got me involved with speaking at open houses to parents and prospective students, executing lots of administrative tasks, and helping plan events.
After about a year of working on these projects outside the classroom and taking on leadership roles in mod teams and clubs, I came to realize that production would be a more appropriate route into the game industry for me. From then on I decided to use my degree to learn the tools and leverage my extracurricular activities into gaining experience in production to prepare for my future career.
Once I figured all that out, my path became much clearer.